By Michael James
The Tribe Sports
With more than a week passed since Super Bowl LII, we still have no answer to the most puzzling and troubling occurrence of the National Football League’s ultimate game: Why did New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick bench Malcolm Butler, one of his best defensive players, when the team needed him most?
What we have heard are whispers of all the alleged disparaging reasons why it happened, but we have not heard any explanation that makes sense.
The reason for this, quite simply, is likely because there is no good reason why it happened.
Not one based in truth, anyway.
And this is, again, more than likely due to the fact that in the days and hours leading up to the Super Bowl, Bill Belichick received information about Malcolm Butler that he accepted as truth and did not bother to vet.
We have heard rumors, attributed to an Instagram post from former Patriots player Brandon Browner that Butler may have been busted for marijuana use. We heard that Butler broke curfew on the Thursday leading up to the game, electing to spend a night out watching a Rick Ross-L’il Jon concert at Tao nightclub in Minneapolis. We heard that Butler missed the team flight to Minneapolis without excuse and arrived a day later than the rest of the team and that he’d struggled in practice all week long and had been demoted in favor of cornerback Eric Rowe.
Somehow, though, more than a week later – and with a victory parade held in Philadelphia by the victorious Eagles that might have been held in Boston had Butler played – none of these allegations have proved to hold even an ounce of validity.
Belichick, most certainly, has not shed any further light on his egregious and cold-hearted decision.
The problem with all these unverified whispers, which served to disparage the reputation of a 27-year-old unrestricted free agent who will likely never play for the New England Patriots again, is that by now, there is absolutely no reason that any of these rumors would remain unproven if they were in fact true.
All of it points to somebody telling Belichick something about Butler, a player he is reported to dislike, and Belichick making an executive decision he felt no obligation to confront Butler about.
It appears that Belichick made an arrogant and costly decision which deprived Butler of a lifetime memory, injured his reputation and free agent market value, and deprived the other Patriots and their fans of a third Super Bowl title in four years.
If you don’t believe this scenario is possible, take a look at the rumors – all of which Malcolm Butler disputed in a statement. They are all easily verifiable, yet none of them have been.
Don’t you think had Butler actually been busted for possessing or smoking weed that even one of his teammates, either anonymously or on the record, would have confirmed the report by now? How about the accusation Butler missed the team plane without an excuse? Surely, one of the other 52 players on the Patriots’ roster or some ancillary team personnel would have known about it. In fact, what is known is that Butler was ill and had to be hospitalized during the week. This was also reported to be a reason he did not travel with the team.
Struggling in practice? This may indeed have been a fact, but what ill player would have performed well under the same circumstances? And, again, this detail is easily verifiable, yet has not been.
The report from NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport alleging Butler skipped curfew to attend a concert? Surely, by now, there would be witnesses to his presence or photographic/video evidence.
Two reasons to believe that Malcolm Butler – who played 100 percent of New England’s defensive snaps in playoff games the previous two weeks, was undermined by an erroneous report to Belichick – lay in the fact he was totally caught off guard by Belichick’s pregame decision not to start him.
Don’t you think had he actually behaved badly that he would have had some clue as to why he was being punished? Don’t you think had he been busted with weed, missed a team plane, blown off curfew or committed any number of alleged misdeeds, that he would have known why Belichick excised him from the game plan?
Anecdotal evidence suggesting Malcolm Butler was unfairly maligned can be found in that he cried during the national anthem, giving the impression that he was only informed he wasn’t starting moments before Pink began her Whitney Houston impersonation.
His stunned reaction to a reporter afterward only confirmed that he had no idea as to Belichick’s reasoning, saying, “They gave up on me. Fu#k, it is what it is.” He added, “It was a coach’s decision… I don’t know what it was. I guess I wasn’t playing good. They didn’t feel comfortable. I could have changed that game, though.”
Of course, Butler could and would have changed the outcome of Super Bowl LII.
It’s not like he hasn’t been burned at different points during the season, but when it really mattered, there was always something you could count on: No. 21 somewhere in the picture on your television screen breaking up a pass, making a key tackle or disrupting a receiver in those moments when a game is won or lost.
You didn’t see that as Philadelphia marched for a game-clinching touchdown late in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LII, a drive likely successful primarily because Malcolm Butler wasn’t allowed to join his teammates to help prevent it.
When it was over, Bill Belichick knew what Philadelphia assistants also noticed after the first several drives when Butler wasn’t out on the field and attacked Rowe, his replacement. Belichick knew he’d handed Philadelphia an unexpected advantage and the Eagles, well, took advantage of it.
Belichick, as he no doubt should, took full responsibility for the loss, which saw his defense surrender 538 yards, the most of any opponent in his 18-year tenure in New England. “It’s on me. It’s all on me,” he said.
You bet your ass it’s on him, because if Rapoport’s report is to be believed, somebody told Belichick that Butler skipped curfew to go to a concert – information he arrogantly accepted as truth without consulting or confronting Butler – and acted upon it. And he had nearly four days to do so.
I’ll give you one guess as to who was not in the hotel lobby when Butler would have returned from a late-night/early-morning concert he is alleged to have attended.
You fill in the blank.
In a dual Instagram/Facebook post, Malcolm Butler denied the rumors – all of which have been talked about publicly by the mainstream press without confirmation. By now, it would stand to reason, if Butler were being untruthful, at least one of them would have been confirmed – and his Instagram denial certainly would not have been supported by none other than Tom Brady, who wrote, “Love you, Malcolm.”
Now, New England’s sixth championship trophy resides in the City of Brotherly Love. Malcolm Butler, hero of Super Bowl XLIX, was deprived of a chance to add to his NFL career experience, and Bill Belichick has given a weak apology accepting responsibility for it all – without ever specifying what mistake he actually made.
The feeling here is that somebody gave Belichick false information and he ran with it – because, being Bill Belichick, a man with total authority, he didn’t have to ask Malcolm Butler if it were true.
For this, the New England Patriots, their fans, the game, and Malcolm Butler, in particular, paid the price.
Michael James has spent more than 20 years in sports journalism as a general assignment reporter with the Detroit News, an NBA beat writer for the New York Daily News and as head writer for ESPN’s Quite Frankly With Stephen A. Smith.